BMCR 2011.10.04

La défense de l’Occident romain pendant l’Antiquité tardive: recherches géostratégiques sur l’Italie de 284 à 410 ap. J.-C. Collection Latomus 326

, La défense de l’Occident romain pendant l’Antiquité tardive: recherches géostratégiques sur l'Italie de 284 à 410 ap. J.-C. Collection Latomus 326. Brussels: Éditions Latomus, 2010. 583. ISBN 9782870312674. €87.00 (pb).

Though the focus of this book is the military challenges and grand strategy, or more precisely geostrategy, of the west in late antiquity, the underlying question is why the Visigoths were able to penetrate Italy in 408 and sack Rome in 410.1 The barbarian invasions of the late fourth and early fifth centuries are usually explained either in terms of internal factors, such as institutional Roman weakness and a presumed withdrawal from affected fronts, such as the Rhine, or external factors, such as the impact of the presence and movement of outside groups, such as the Huns, on those groups that were situated at Rome’s borders, such as the Goths. By focusing on issues of defence and strategy Vannesse tends to favour the internal explanation, and much of this book is an extended description of the internal defence structures that characterized late Roman Italy and the geographic features that constrained those structures.

There are five chapters that vary widely in length, with the last chapter taking well over 200 pages. In the first chapter Vannesse sets out the aims of his book, including an overview of geostrategy and provides a discussion of the views of Luttwak and their impact. The most influential point from the perspective of Vannesse, however, is one raised by Carrié, who felt that it was necessary to study each particular region when concerned with the strategy of the later Roman Empire; hence Vannesse’s focus on Italy. A somewhat problematic geographical overview follows. 2

Chapters two through four are essentially an historical narrative of the years from 260-412, with an emphasis on military and political events. These chapters also include what could be called digressions, where Vannesse treats matters such as the rise of Milan and Aquileia (pp. 86-99), as well as barbarization and recruitment (if only briefly, pp. 143-52). Although there is something to be said for “setting the scene”, I am not entirely sure that such a detailed narrative was warranted.

The fifth chapter, running from pages 159 to 427, provides the heart of the discussion. Here Vannesse returns to the question of grand strategy by describing three key elements of Italy’s defensive network (or lack thereof, as it turns out): the roads, the troops, and the fortifications. Incorporating a history, of sorts, of military units into a narrative format is no mean feat, and Vannesse attempts to do so by dividing his discussion according to type of evidence: the Notitia Dignitatum (pp. 187-233), epigraphic texts such as milestones (pp. 233-262), and material remains such as brooches (pp. 262-273). This is followed by an extensive discussion of fortifications (pp. 273-353).

Based on the mass of material collected about roads, troops, and the defensive structures Venetia was the most important region in the defence of Italy for Vannesse, in part because of geography, though Milan and the Po valley also receive some consideration. Having noted Venetia’s importance Vannesse now provides a discussion of the particular geostrategic elements of a number of conflicts in the area (pp. 353-67), along with some helpful tables in the appendix (pp. 535-40). Much of this discussion points towards an ad hoc approach to strategy and a defensive system that developed, at least in part (the Julian Alps for example), in response to a plethora of internal conflicts and invading forces. A good portion of the next section of the text (pp. 373-386) is concerned with the changing importance of varied sites in northern Italy, such as Milan. Vanesse then (386-418) turns to some of those geostrategic elements discussed earlier, including the transalpine routes, and the challenges the Romans faced, the maintenance of the road network, the Italian coastline, and the importance of maintaining the supply of African wheat. Ultimately, Vannesse notes the inherent difficulty in defending Italy and he expresses a desire that studies similar to his own will be carried out on other parts of the empire (pp. 422-3). The bibliography of this book is extensive. On the other hand, there are a number of surprising omissions, including the works of Brennan, Christie, Drinkwater, Ferrill, Elton, and Goffart.3

Vannesse has done an admirable job of describing the defensive system of Italy and elucidating its complexities. His suggestion that the Romans continued to be reactive rather than proactive is probably right. As for the barbarians’ success in penetrating northern Italy in the early fifth century, Vannesse thinks it was largely the result of the discontinuity in Rome’s strategic thinking and the lack of a clear strategic plan. On the other hand, his dismissal of the defence-in-depth model, largely because of the character of Italian physical defences, seems misguided; his characterization of the military units and his emphasis on their mobility and responsiveness suggests that some sort of defence-in-depth system was in place even if, as he has aptly demonstrated, that system was largely ineffective. Despite the repeated conflict in the peninsula the Romans never really saw fit to fortify the area, which in itself seems to point towards Italy’s place in a larger defensive system, even if no specific grand strategy ever existed. Also his argument that much of the defensive work was put in place in the middle third of the third century seems to undermine his “internal” position in relation to the early fifth century invasions, for that continuity would surely bolster the view that it was the presence of more substantial external threats that led to the turbulent situation in Italy.

For all the emphasis on the structural failings and geographic and strategic challenges faced by the Romans there is little attention given to the role of the invading barbarians themselves. Though Vannesse has demonstrated that the Romans were generally aware of the strategic challenges they faced, or at least able to respond to them, surely the ability of the invaders to recognize and exploit these weaknesses deserves some consideration. Also, one wonders if Gaul, Raetia, Noricum, and Illyricum could have received more attention; before any foe, internal or external, could enter Italy it had to overcome whatever obstacles (military and otherwise) lay in wait in those regions first. Italy had been indefensible at least since Hannibal and the key to its defence lay outside the peninsula and in the strength of its soldiers. Even though the examination of other regions was never Vannesse’s expressed goal, I wonder whether regions really ought to be discussed in isolation, as is the case here.

Finally, in many ways the title of the book should have been something along the lines of “Studies in the Defence of the Late Roman West with an Emphasis on Italy”. Vannesse has managed to discuss and include a wealth of material, but I would have preferred a few more obvious attempts to situate the respective discussions of that plentiful and dense material into the book’s larger objectives. Nevertheless, the very fact that Vannesse was willing and able to discuss a broad range of evidence, from the literary to the material, deserves notice, for there is still a tendency for some scholars to favour one type of evidence over the others.

Overall then, in this well-researched book Vannesse has done a fine job of describing the defensive system of Italy and so has contributed an important work to the ongoing, and still unresolved, question of grand strategy in the later Roman Empire, while providing stimulation and inspiration for further research on the subject.


1. This is the question put forth by Le Bohec (p. 6) in his preface to the book. On geostrategy and the Punic Wars, see Michael P. Fronda, “Hannibal: Tactics, Strategy, and Geostrategy”, in Dexter Hoyos (ed.), A Companion to the Punic Wars (Oxford, 2011), 242-59.

2. For the uninitiated trudging through lists of northern Italian towns and cities without a map close at hand (pp. 29-30, for example) is particularly difficult. It seems surprising to me that the abundant maps were not incorporated into the text itself instead of being collected together in the back of the book.

3. Brennan, P. (1998) “The User’s Guide to the Notitia Dignitatum : the Case of the Dux Armeniae ( ND Or. 38)”, Antichthon 32 (1998) 34-49; Christie, N. (2006) From Constantine to Charlemagne (Aldershot 2006); Drinkwater, J. F. (2007) The Alamanni and Rome 213-496 (Oxford 2007); Ferrill, A. (1986) the Fall of the Roman Empire: the Military Explanation (London 1986); Elton, H. (1996) Warfare in Roman Europe, AD 350-425 (Oxford 1986); and Goffart, W. (2006) Barbarian Tides (Philadelphia 2006).